Photography / Editorial / Print

Jonathan Hurley, 36, is an ceramacist who lives in Shepherds Bush and works in a studio on a farm near Harefield.  The studio outside London allows him to 'make dust and noise without being hassled by the neighbours', enjoy the glorious summer months where he works 'mostly outside in the sun, chatting to the horses and cattle' and make use of the space in which to contemplate and sculpt. Hurley was bought up in the north of Essex, but his mother regularly took him to London to look at exhibitions.  Hurley and his brother 'would often be building things in the garden, more often than not, platforms in trees which they dubbed tree-houses'. His brother studied ceramics at Camberwell College of Art and Hurley 'often found himself on the phone to him with technical questions. It was probably his and another good friend’s interest in ceramics at school that led him to Gordon Baldwin’s studio'. Hurley was educated at Eton College, where he met Baldwin, and then did a Diploma in Fine Art at Wimbledon, followed by a degree in History of Art at Edinburgh University. 

We gathered Hurley's thoughts on his work and his design philosophy:

My design philosophy is truth to, and indulgence in, materials. In fact, my pieces, whether lamps or sculptures, are driven by the material in which they are made. This can come in to play on a very basic level, for example, in the decoration of the cone lamps: the manganese dioxide (which is the black) is caught in the lines cut into the piece which emphasises the plasticity of the clay pre-firing and draws the viewer’s attention to the cuts in the shaft of the piece. More obviously this philosophy can be seen in the Institution series (pictured opposite) where the clay has been folded by the force of the impression of the stamp on it and had the pattern on the stamp passed onto its surface. Both of these elements are highlighted by the manganese dioxide in the crevices of the creases and in the depths of the impressions left by the print of the stamp.

Was an introduction to ceramics by Gordon Baldwin, instrumental in your choice of profession?

I suppose the question really is: “Would I have found sculpture and ceramics if it weren’t for Baldwin”. I often wonder if I would have become so enthusiastic about them so early if it hadn’t been for him. His work is obviously amazing and to have the privilege of working in the same studio as one of his pieces grows was fantastic. It was also special to have his tuition at an age when the brain is sucking up ideas and knowledge at an incredible rate. His treatment of the material’s surface has obviously stayed with me and I cannot lose my fascination with this aspect of ceramics. So I think that being introduced to ceramics was definitely instrumental in my choice of profession. When I am not in my studio I am also to be found on advertising film sets as a director of photography (; this is a profession which may also be attributed in part to Baldwin as he encouraged my early enthusiasm for photography.

What fascinates you about ceramics and sculpting?

I love being able to handle what I’m creating. Something from my brain is acquiring plastic form through my hands. It is a piece of my brain sitting on the table! Ceramics, as a part of sculpture, is fascinating for me because of the transition which clay undergoes in the kiln: it goes from being a soft, wet material to a hard, cold object. The past attributes of clay as something soft in contrast to its fired qualities of hardness and brittleness were things that I was concerned about in my Squash pieces (opposite) and Institution pieces, where the past softness is referred to by the soft backing whilst the clay itself is so brittle warmth of the materials are also something to which I refer in these series as the warm fabric contrasts with the cold fired clay.

In my more current pieces I am fascinated by the similarity of fired clay to bone, for example Spine (picture), and how this contrasts with our soft flesh. This links with the contrast of soft, wet clay and hard, dry fired ceramic.

Could you tell us about your lamps, the colours and patterning employed?

I try to keep my lamps as simple as possible as so that they are contribute to someone’s home rather than dominating it. I think that there is quite a contrast between making sculpture and making lamps as with sculpture one is drawing attention to the object whereas with the lamps one is fulfilling a function with an object in a beautiful (one hopes) way.

With my hand-crafted bespoke contemporary ceramic lamps I’m attempting to fuse innovative techniques of creation with modern design, combining simple shapes and decoration with a minimal colour scheme. They have a contemporary look but are based in the ancient craft of pottery. The lamps are based on six primary designs: tall stripy cones, clay slabs wrapped into a conical shape, piles of rocks, pyramids, Ancient Greek Amphoras, and squashed blocks. They are designed with a view to fit into any interior whilst also bringing an element of originality and individuality to the room. They are meant to be a welcome addition to the most cutting edge interior scheme as well as an unobtrusive element in a down to earth setting.

The conical lamps seem to be a fusion of an elephant’s tusk with a turned piece of rock. The stripes are lines created by oxides caught in cuts in the clay created by resting a knife on the object as it is turned by an adapted hand drill! These lines emphasise the vertical nature of the piece whilst compartmentalising its organic surface.

The wrap lamps are the most organic in this series of designs. They are like a stiffened piece of clothing supporting a light. The seam is deliberately visible and its frayed edge constitutes the primary decorative element on the piece.

My Stone pile lamps are like precariously piled rocks which echo Andy Goldsworthy’s natural sculptures. The rock elements are of different sizes and shapes. The pyramid lamps have a spiral oxide-filled line which emphasises their shape as it cuts deeper into the four edges of the pieces than the centre. This has the effect of giving texture in addition to those marks which are brought about in the making process.

The squashed blocks have indentations on their sides which were once squares and rectangles. These emphasise the compression of the clay pieces as one can clearly see the transformation of the shapes whose sides have become bent and folded. Oxides have also been used in these pieces to pick out the edges of the shapes and any texture which has been transferred when the indentations were created.

The Ancient Greek Amphora designs use a traditional shape with foliage decoration inspired by that used by the Greeks on vases: black oxide applied on natural clay.All these lamps have a simple colour scheme often using the natural colour of the clay combined with markings brought about in the making process as a base for any further decoration. The combination of a modern design with hand craft forms a break from the norm where products of modern design tend to be mass-produced and therefore often clinical looking while hand-made things are either ethnic or with too much emphasis on traditional design. Each item is an individual but they are similar enough to allow paring and use in a unified interior scheme. They are about 50 to 60 cms high, have chrome lamp-heads and black wiring with a 13AMP plug.

Did you see yourself as a sculptor as a child, did you ever experiment with making objects out of your explorations when young?

Like all children, I immensely enjoyed making things with cardboard boxes, but I don’t think that these things necessarily represented anything; they were more environments than objects and I got enjoyment from going inside them. Maybe one could see this as the inverse of sculpture making as, in the cardboard environments, one is putting oneself in an object, whereas in sculpture, one is putting oneself outside an object which was once inside one. There was also making things with “sticky-backed plastic” à la Blue Peter which was naturally distracting but not by any means an obsession! I can boast to have won a Fischer-Price colouring-in competition when I was about 6; my mother still has it on the wall in her kitchen! This is more relevant than it could have been as I won a printing machine; maybe this is the source of my clay prints!

As I have already mentioned, my brother and I enjoyed making treehouses. Could these have been a precursor to what I am currently involved in with my work I am hanging in trees I wonder?

Could you describe your institution series to us, you mention that each piece is an individual - does it concern the loss of innocence and how institutions born from modern society mould you into a hardened form - different to that in childhood, the world becomes smaller and we lose our identity?

The Institution series of pieces are wall pieces made up of a number of clay blocks mounted on a cushioned fabric backing inside a thick black frame. The clay blocks have prints pressed into the clay which echo the pattern created by them in the shape of the whole piece. They are concerned with texture, pressure, qualities of cold and hard juxtaposed with warm and soft and these physical attributes trigger philosophical concerns with mortality and reproduction, identity, and the position of the individual in society.

Everyone is unavoidably concerned with issues of mortality. This issue is explored in the sculptures by the way that the clay appears to be protected by its soft and warm backing which links to the protection of a child in the womb. This is most obvious in the Cushion series and is further emphasised by the sexual connotations represented by the hard clay’s protrusion into the soft cushion.

The pieces are concerned with the evolution of identity, expressed through the stamping of marks on the pieces of clay. The clay was malleable before it was fired, like us when we are young, in childhood, and that was when it was stamped. Now the clay is hard and no longer malleable, similar to the way grown up people are less impressionable. The past softness of the clay is echoed by the current softness of the surrounding fabric. All colour is in the fabric, and the natural colour of the clay serves only to increase the quality of coldness and hardness juxtaposed by the softness of the fabric.

In the Institution series, each piece of fired clay is a microcosm of the finished piece mounted within its frame. The viewer is encouraged to view the piece as a whole but the detail of each piece, draws one unmistakably to the fact that each clay bit is individual. When humans are viewed en mass, we are unavoidably objectified, especially when viewed as numbers. This objectification is worrying as it can make people in positions of power, or us when we watch the news, forget that in all these numbers are actually individual humans.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Most of the inspiration for my pieces comes from the characteristics of the materials themselves. In a way the pieces are expressing their own existence as I am so involved in exploring what it is with which I’m making the pieces. I also look around myself at the world I see, usually the small details, and that informs the work. I often see an interesting pattern on a wall or in a piece of concrete or something like that and I’ll make a sketch or take a note of it and it might form into an idea. A trip to the Victoria and Albert museum has recently inspired me tremendously. I find that inspiration from a trip to a museum comes more from a combination of a number of stimuli rather than from one specific piece, but definitely looking at art, past and present, is important sustenance for my work.

The interconnected threads that bind elements in your hanging series are visually dramatic, could you tell us about the series and what it expresses?

My Hanging pieces are a series of monochromatic fired ceramic pieces supported by multicoloured cotton thread.  The ceramic pieces were produced by rolling the unfired clay between sections of cloth, and the resulting pattern creates unique markings on each of the ceramic pieces.  These crevices were filled with manganese oxide which resulted in a brown black colour post firing.  The fired ceramic pieces are then assembled in a vertical formation one above the other, each supported by alternating coloured threads.  These threads are in turn supported by a wooden projection which is attached to the wall.

One can see the recurring theme of the individual in society through the use of these materials.  The thread represents society and the fired ceramic represents the individual.  Each of the pieces of fired ceramic has unique markings and shape, just like individual humans in society.  The string supports these ceramic pieces and also passes through them, but it also seems to cut into them. This is similar to the way society supports us and also passes through all aspects of our life, but also suppresses us.

Hanging could be likened to a deconstructed human spine.  The spinal cord, which runs all the functions of the body, runs down the middle of the spine. In this piece, the cords which support the construction run through the centre of the elements which make it up. These threads are the core of this piece; the spinal cord is the core of a spine; society is the core of contemporary living.My Garden Hanging series is the series of pieces on which I’m currently working. The issues that they conjure up are only really connected with the Hangings in that they are concerned with anthropomorphism and they are connecting humans to nature through their garden setting. It is a (human?) backbone in nature. As they are work in progress it is difficult to express verbally what I am doing, but I know that, aesthetically, I’m very pleased!

Is the texture and tactile nature of sculptures and lamps important to you?

The texture and tactile nature of the sculptures and lamps are very important to me. Because I am so interested in the materials to the point that the pieces actually seem to express the materials, the texture is very important as it, in turn, expresses the quality of the material. I feel that an important concern of sculpture is the fact of it being a solid thing and this is expressed by it being a mass and by any cuts into the piece, which give rise to texture, also draw attention to its solidity.

In the Squash pieces and the Institution pieces it is the different tactile quality of the two materials, fabric and fired ceramic, and the contrast they set up which express the major concerns of the pieces. I seem to be moving away from contrasting materials in my recent Garden Hangings, for example Spine, which have only one primary material. In these pieces I am presenting ceramic in a way that could be seen as alien to it as the piece as a whole is bendy whilst fired ceramic itself is stiff. Spine moves in the wind: this is a quality we do not expect of an object made of ceramic.

Tell us about merging the use of ceramic, fabric, threads and other medium?

I think I first started mixing ceramic with other materials when I was still at school! I originally made ceramic vessels. Mixing materials came about because I thought that the presentation of the ceramic vessels was a very important aspect of the work. The first piece I treated in this way was a tall “vessel” riddled with holes which I mounted suspended in a metal cube. From here I started making ceramic candle-sticks each with their own wooden, stone or plaster stand; next I made vessels on a stand which I then placed in a stream so that only the vessel and a small bit of the stand was visible above the water level. The next move was the idea of fusing drawing and sculpture by making papier-mâché clay and, after firing, these delicate items had to be mounted on the wall, so I started involving myself in the question of how they could be mounted which then started to involve thread and fabric.

That is the history of how I got into doing what I have been doing for the last few years. One can even see the mix of materials creeping into my lamp work, most obviously in Still Lamp which is a direct quotation from one of my earlier sculptures, Homage to Clifford Still1. The reasons we have covered: the contrast between cold, hard clay and warm, soft fabric.

What plans do you have for the coming year?

This is an exciting year for me because I feel my Garden Hangings, on which I am still working, are a departure as they are moving from the mixture of materials into and involvement in one primary material, fired ceramic, and then playing with its qualities. I am going to fully explore fired ceramic in an outdoor setting and then carefully document these pieces. I hope that the photographs may become pieces in their own right which I hope will lead to an exploration of medium in a similar way to that in which my earlier pieces explored materials.

I am also excited by my lamps as I have recently done a commission in oak  which I found deeply satisfying and I am hoping that this may lead to more pieces in wood.

Photographs supplied with kind permission by Jonathan Hurley, Copyright © Jonathan Hurley
Interview by Nardip Singh


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